An Excerpt from “Paleolithic Politics” by Barry Cooper

New in April 2020, Paleolithic Politics: The Human Community in Early Art demonstrates the political significance of the earliest expressions of human existence and is among the first books to argue that political life began 25,000 years before the Greeks.

From the conclusion:

It is no doubt correct to start from the position that, if Paleolithic art contains a message, it “was not aimed at us” and “that we cannot understand clearly.” That does not mean that we cannot understand anything at all about Paleolithic art. As Bahn said: “What it comes down to, basically, is whether one is content to work with the art as a body of markings that cannot be read, or whether one wants to have stories made up about it!” Either way, however, we must deal with a narrative, thus we ask, Is the available narrative persuasive? And why?

A second equally sensible starting point, again to quote Bahn, was not that Paleolithic signs and symbols had no meaning, but that they had many complex meanings, and “that is the nub of the problem.” In a similar vein, Michel Lorblanchet observed that “the everlasting freedom of Paleolithic art is an embarrassment to prehistorians,” because prehistorians sought to understand the meaning of an image “but in fact it may have many.” For a compact human consciousness living within a consubstantial cosmos, matters could hardly be otherwise. Moreover, even before direct radiocarbon dating, several paleoscientists expected there to be considerable stylistic diversity rather than a single timeline for the development of a single phenomenon called “Paleolithic art.” Over a period of 30 KY, a lot can happen, including both technical improvement and regression, as Raphael insisted many years ago. Accordingly, one may expect a great variety of styles to have developed over the centuries. Leroi-Gourhan was aware of this possibility, even though he was surprised by the sophistication of the carvings from Aurignacian Vogelherd, which he classified as Style II even though they dated from an era he identified as characterized by Style I.

Another complication followed from the acoustic properties of any particular cave. Given that it was often true that the areas with the most decoration were also areas with the best acoustics, some caves may have been initially selected for their sound qualities. The implication was that such caves could be used for singing and chanting or loudly reciting prayers. Moreover, since humans alone among all forms of life undertake community dances, and because dancing increases emotional bonds, especially among participants, caves may also have been selected as dance halls.

Paleolithic Politics:
The Human Community

in Early Art
by Barry Cooper
Available April 2020

More broadly, the topography of the caves often conveyed a general meaning. To begin with, inhabited caves were seldom decorated and decorated caves were seldom inhabited, which suggested clearly enough that they were special venues for special conduct, such as rituals and mythtelling. Assuming the Paleolithic entrance(s) could be located, early explorers no less than Leroi-Gourhan and Laming-Emperaire noticed that the art that could be viewed in daylight differed from the art in the dark depths. Relatively early the backs of the caves were called sanctuaries and were characterized chiefly as the location of painted or engraved figures rather than sculptures or reliefs. Leroi-Gourhan said, “It seems that the deeper inside the cave a sanctuary is located, the less often did people visit it. Occasionally one suspects that only one expedition took place,” which would have given such deep places an even greater sense of mystery. Accessibility, however, did not depend only on the amount of effort it takes to view the art but also on how well it is hidden and who gets to look for it. Since much Paleolithic art was located near the cave mouth and probably much more was in the open air (but has since vanished), location was significant, though the details regarding the nature of that significance remain unknown.

Even today, the experience of penetrating to the depths of a decorated cave is often the occasion of strange feelings, though not perhaps a trance or an altered state of consciousness. Among Paleoscientists this experience has often been reflected in the eloquence of their language. Michel Lorblanchet, for example, described cave art as a conversation among the cave, the wall, and the artist. “The rock does not just support the image,” he said, “it participates in it intimately.” Marcel Otte similarly wrote of the “strange plastic messages” of the caves concerning “a dialogue between rock and thought, through which wild nature seems to be itself articulated by the contact of lines added to the rocky relief. The spirit of the Paleolithic message is here: natural and mute, it forms a group of signs disposed in harmony with the surroundings in which they are presented.” The art evoked a “spiritual coherence” that was “guided by the topography and use of different places.” The “dominant impression,” he continued, “is that of an effervescence of mysticism founded on the mastery of natural forces, creating encoded scenarios that are displayed materially, by the image, as if to assure their effectiveness.”